Research is more nuanced than easy numbers imply
This from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
When journalists and politicians talk about campus rape—as they have frequently over the past several months—they tend to pluck numbers out of context. Studies done on one or two campuses are said to represent the country. Estimates become facts.
The reality is that measuring sexual violence remains a challenge. Survey participants are asked to disclose to researchers information they may not want to admit to themselves. Perpetrators may balk at acknowledging behavior they know to be criminal.
What’s more, scholars in different fields clash over how to study the subject. Some fret about the emphasis on measuring crime, whereas colleges must face a broader spectrum of sexual misconduct.
How do we know what we know? And where do we need more research? Here’s a closer look at several assertions informing the conversation about campus rape.
• One in five women is sexually assaulted in college.
That figure opened a report from a White House task force on sexual assault and has since been widely quoted. But the number comes from a study that wasn’t designed to yield a national estimate.
The initial impetus for the research was narrower: measuring the prevalence of drug-facilitated sexual assault. To do that, the study’s lead author, Christopher P. Krebs, had to start broadly, identifying victims and the nature of their assaults.
Mr. Krebs, a senior research social scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research group, surveyed 5,446 undergraduate women at two large public universities.
Among the findings: 19.8 percent of women, says Mr. Krebs, "will experience a completed sexual assault while they’re in college." That number (the source of the "one in five" figure) includes a range of behaviors, from groping to intercourse.
The figure has faced criticism. Some fault its inclusion of lesser offenses. Mr. Krebs replies by offering a number that omits them: One in seven female undergraduates will be a rape victim in college, meaning "penetration that was unwanted and that they did not consent to."
Others say the small study can’t be the basis for a national rate. As one critic told the Tampa Bay Times, "This ‘one in five’ statistic shouldn’t just be taken with a grain of salt, but the entire shaker."
Such talk is "hyperbole," argues Mary P. Koss, a veteran sexual-assault researcher and professor of public health at the University of Arizona. Mr. Krebs’s findings are "not out of line with what is reported by other studies," she says. "To take a body of research where there is some range of confidence around the estimates," she says, "and to imply that it is basically worthless information that can’t be trusted—it makes good controversy, but it’s not a scientifically rational thing to say."
• Most rapes are committed by serial predators.
So writes David Lisak, a clinical psychologist whose work has become another touchstone in the dialogue about campus rape. Mr. Lisak seeks to correct the conventional view of college rapists: that they are essentially decent men who would never commit such acts were it not for boozing and poor communication.
In a study published in 2002, Mr. Lisak surveyed 1,882 men at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Roughly 6 percent acknowledged committing acts that met the definition of rape. But what stunned Mr. Lisak was the nature of those offenders: Of the 120 rapists, 76 of them, or 63 percent, reported committing more than one rape. Those serial predators averaged six rapes each.
That has serious potential implications for colleges. Mr. Lisak, a retired associate professor of psychology at UMass-Boston, argues that each reported sexual assault should generate an investigation of both the incident and the alleged attacker, to see whether evidence exists that he committed other offenses.
Mr. Lisak did his research at a commuter campus that caters to working students who skew older than those at a traditional residential college. In part because of that, a Slate analysis concluded his study "cannot fairly be said to describe the behavior of the majority of young men who find themselves accused."
But drawing on his reading of related research on rape perpetrators, inside and outside academe, Mr. Lisak says that he strongly suspects his findings are generalizable. To what extent, he does not know.
• Fraternity men are three times as likely as other male students to rape.
That statistic appeared in Rolling Stone’s notorious article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. One source for the assertion is work by John D. Foubert, a rape-prevention advocate and professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University.
For a study published in 2007, Mr. Foubert surveyed 565 first-year men at a public university in the Southeast. His main goal was to test whether a rape-prevention program changed students’ behavior over an academic year.
Mr. Foubert found that 8 percent of men who joined fraternities committed some act of sexual assault during the year, compared with 2.5 percent of nonfraternity members. (On average, the men who did and did not join fraternities had committed the same number of sexual assaults before they arrived at college.)
"Something about the fraternity experience," Mr. Foubert concludes, "must be leading to this increase in sexual violence."
Such studies might imply one solution to the problem: Shut down frats. Ms. Koss cautions that people too quickly seize on that as an "easy answer." Yes, fraternity men report higher rape rates. But "men are multifaceted," she says.
"If you do an analysis," she says, "where you say, OK, now after we’ve taken account for how much they drink, and after we’ve taken account of what kind of peer group they’re in, and the amount of peer support they get for impersonal sex and objectifying women and pursuing sex at all costs—now, does fraternity membership predict the rape rate? No. The biggest predictors of the rape rate are peer support and alcohol use."
• College women are at greater risk of sexual assault than are their non-college-bound peers.
That’s presented as a fact on the website of Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who in July introduced a bill to combat campus sexual assaults.
But a recent study challenged the idea, reporting that college women are less likely than nonstudents to be attacked. Among women 18 to 24, the rate of rape and other sexual assault was 1.2 times higher for nonstudents than for students, according to that federal study.
What explains the discrepancy? The senator’s source is a 2005 report by the National Institute of Justice. The Chronicle asked one of that report’s authors, Bonnie S. Fisher, to describe the specific data used to assert that students face more risk. Ms. Fisher, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, could not immediately do so.
"That was probably our current state of knowledge or belief at that time," given the research available, Ms. Fisher says. She adds, "You’re really missing the bigger issue, which is that individuals age 18 to 24" have "among the highest rate of rape and sexual assault."
Scholars point to several aspects of the rape problem on campuses that need more research. The perpetrators, for one thing, says Mr. Krebs, of RTI International. Researchers are good at surveying victims. But they know too little, he says, about the men who carry out sexual assaults: who the attackers are, how they think, and how to change their behavior.
Another area for more research: campus climate. Is sexual harassment common at certain colleges? Are attitudes toward women more negative? The goal is to measure whether such attitudes and behaviors translate into more sexual assault, says Mr. Krebs, who plans to study campus climate as part of a large survey he is developing with partners including the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the White House. Knowing that information could help colleges try to change students’ behavior.
Still, Ms. Koss worries about the influence of crime-oriented approaches. She cites a controversial survey planned by the Association of American Universities.
"Sexual assault is a multidisciplinary field," Ms. Koss says. "And yet the measurement of it seems to be, in this initiative, concentrated in the hands of criminologists. Which means that the health perspective and the psychological perspective is not being heard."
She adds, "In the literature within other disciplines, we look at sexual victimization as being a continuum that starts with lower-severity things"—catcalls and surreptitious videotaping, for example—"and at the very extreme end is rape."
(Ms. Fisher, who is working on the AAU survey, says the project strives for a "balanced" approach that draws on multiple disciplines.)
Another concern is that the public focus on sexual assault may make it harder to collect data.
That’s because the ability to study perpetrators "is predicated on students’ really not understanding that we’re asking questions about rape," Mr. Lisak says. (Surveys avoid words like "rape"; students feel they are simply describing sexual experiences.) Given the publicity, Mr. Lisak fears many more will grasp that researchers are inquiring about rape—and refrain from answering honestly.